Too hot today – the office radiators seem to be stuck on “Sahara” whilst the ambient temperature from the sun is rather pleasant whilst we’re outside but stuck in this mausoleum, not quite tolerable.  Of course trying to work with a hangover, a persistent appetite and a raging libido is somewhat distracting. 

Platoon by Ocean Software was a game that was loosely based on the Oliver Stone film of 1986.  It is set during the Vietnam War where the player controls a platoon of men undertaking several missions behind enemy lines trying to make their way back to base.  The C64 version of the game is particularly well regarded for its music which frequently turns up on Kwed and other sites being remixed so superbly.  Jonathan Dunn really deserves a great deal of the credit for such a brilliant series of tracks that can be listened to over and over again. 

As I am chiefly familiar with the C64 version of the game, I’ll be naturally writing about that – the game is broken up into three “loads” – level one, levels two & three and level four. The first features a five-man platoon roaming the jungle (third-person perspective) trying to find explosives with which to destroy a bridge.  Once the bridge has been thoroughly wrecked, the platoon must infiltrate a Viet Cong village and locate a secret tunnel to an underground cave network. The jungle is thick with troops and trip-wire booby traps.  Each soldier carries a certain amount of ammo and can take up to four bullets before expiring permanently – the soldiers aren’t otherwise different and can be swapped in and out of play at will.  An interesting feature of the game is that as well as logging the hits a soldier takes, there is a “Morale” bar, which if it drops to zero after repeated hits/kills, none of the soldiers will fight any more and it’ll be game over – chiefly to get around the infinite health thing – more later. 

Level two is set in a cave network beneath the jungle and the player is required to destroy an arms cache before making their way to a bunker for the night.  Viet Cong soldiers prowl the caves, ambushing the player at random.  Alas the platoon has been reduced to two men (irrespective of how one does in the first level) which increases the likelihood of overall failure.  This is played in a first person mode and is a definite forerunner to games like Doom and Castle Wolfenstein and surprisingly works with a joystick/pad.  The only time crosshairs move is when an enemy soldier appears on screen, otherwise joystick movement will turn or move the character backwards or forwards (fortunately all enemies attack from the front). 

The third level is set in the bunker – whilst night has fallen, several Viet Cong troops emerge from the jungle in a midnight ambush.  Armed with a limited amount of ammo and flares, the player needs to hold off the assault for about five minutes.  Whilst soldiers can be seen to move in the darkness, flares really are needed to illuminate the landscape. 

The fourth and final level is set back in the jungle and the player needs to take out an enemy commander in a bunker before making his way home.  Unlike the first level, this is reminiscent of a shooting gallery where the player is encouraged to move left and right dodging shots and firing back bullets at soldiers.  Progression is measured screen by screen and it’s somewhat easy to get lost in the maze. 

So, the memories:  Platoon took a surprisingly long time to load, approximately 190 rels which is equivalent to about twelve minutes.  If one fired it up on the cassette deck, there’d be more than enough time to go make a cup of tea from scratch, a sandwich and to read a chapter in your favourite book.  By far the “worst” offender from the Commodore 64 days (and one wonders why there was never a “beat the loader” game thrown in).  But during loading, one was treated to a nice rendition of the infamous “William Defoe dies” scene whilst the ethereal main soundtrack plays.  The Platoon theme is vaguely reminiscent of a human moan and has a slow tempo whilst an almost military march makes up the percussion and a synth-electric guitar provides the melody.  And in another strange twist, the bright colourful lines that normally make up loading screens (and give a vital clue that something has gone wrong if interrupted from normal flow) is not present, instead the background is pure white, the only game I know of to have done this. 

In my day, I played this more often than not on a black and white portable so never really got to enjoy the game in colour (except when I could gain use of the second colour tv in the kitchen).  I never really got to appreciate what the game looked like in its colourful glory.  But the thing with C64 games – something that has only occurred to me just now (and will be written about post-haste) – is that the designers would keep people using black and white tvs in mind and ensure that colour palettes would not be confusing to players, indeed – some games even provided a black and white mode! 

Wow, I’ve never really considered that issue since I’ve been playing video games on a colour television/monitor for 20 years (I had my grandmothers former B&W portable between the ages of 7 and 9 for my Atari 2600 and C64 until I was lucky enough to get a cast off colour tv).  This is why I love these trips down memory lane, you never know the twists and turns they take. 

Anyway, back to Platoon: once the game fired up and began in earnest, the main character was a fairly basic design and had super human jumping abilities (he could jump clean over an enemy soldier) though if he jumped at the same time as an enemy – they’d take a hit if they collided in mid air.  Jumping was essential to dodge trip wires which would instantly kill a soldier who blundered over one (and were easier to spot on the B&W tv) as they merged in with the orange/brown jungle paths at times.  The player could lob a grenade at the trip wires to blow them up and if successful, the next load of enemies would generally drop first aid kits when killed.  This is what I mean by the infinite health bug – throw a grenade at trip wire or a soldier and if successful, the kits would continue to be dropped so a worn out platoon could be brought back up to full health in no short order.  Morale would rise the first few times a first aid kit is used but eventually that bonus stops and it’s down, down, down then on.  The other nasty thing about trip wires would be that they spawned randomly and reappear in the same place occasionally when returning to a screen already passed.  

After blowing up the bridge, the village was quite fun and searching huts for stuff was interesting except where the booby trapped items were involved, like trip wires they would kill a soldier outright if triggered.  It often felt as if the first level was in fact two – once the bridge was gone, the village played like a different level as the emphasis was on obtaining items for the trip into the caves rather than killing as many bad guys as possible. 

The cave tunnels had a really creepy tune, one which puts me in mind of ghosts and spooks.  It is a slow but inexorable march towards a crescendo, drops of water and a slow slog feature in the melody which takes some unexpected twists as it plays.  When in the actual game, it really can make a player react with the music rather than the events.  Exploring the caves is fun but you are hampered by limited ammunition which really needs to be replenished as the enemies come thick and fast.  A further “cute” addition to the level is the fact that each item in a room can be examined: “a cup of cold tea, it tastes disgusting”.  This sort of thing never really happened in action games at the time.   

The bunker – I hated the bunker level and confess I never completed it successfully as I ran out of flares and found it hard to discern movement in the dark (the B&W TV was a hindrance here whereas in colour, you could see better).  I also thought the soundtrack was weakest for this level – very South-East Asian but after the first two levels, you want something with a bit more oomph.  Fortunately when you died, you had to rewind the tape back to the beginning to reload level one but if you just hit fire on the joystick, level four would load up for ya and allowed you to continue playing. 

I used to love the last level’s music, it was very upbeat with a great guitar riff definitely evoked images of “heroes” as you were almost at the end of a gruelling slog.  Killing the bad guys in this level was difficult as hitting them required a certain amount of luck and skill (their dodging of bullets was legendary) though once several were obliterated, they would not come back.  Also on each screen were booby traps – landmines or barbed wire which caused a “hit” each time one came into contact with them.  I only got to the command bunker twice in the many times I played the game but never did kill the commander…hopeless.  Still, I have watched the YouTube video of it being done… 

And then game over.  One of the best games on the C64 – I think there was a cartridge version of the game released during the brief era of the C64GS as Ocean were quite good on that score and anything to reduce the monumental loading times was great although keyboard use was required for the game (swapping players, launching grenades or flares) so I’m not sure how all that worked out.  It came after Rambo and it is quite pleasing that although the games have vaguely similar backdrops, they play rather differently; Rambo has a definite arcade feel like Commando whilst Platoon is a more grown up, mature game.  And did I mention the awesome soundtrack?